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Co-production & collaboration in the archive

Last week, Karen and Mike took part in this year’s Gerald Aylmer seminar, a day-long symposium themed around ‘co-production & collaboration in the archive’. Jointly organised by The National Archives (TNA, the venue for the day), the Royal Historical Society (RHS) and the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), it was a fascinating gathering of people and perspectives, and has been very useful for us as a project in all sorts of ways. This week’s blog post offers a few reflections on the seminar. This is very much selective, as it’s impossible to do the breadth of the day justice, but the good news is that at least the presentations should be being made available online in due course. Sadly this won’t include the discussion, which was often at least as informative.

Given the long-established importance of collaboration in all sorts of historical (and other) research, and the increasing number of projects using co-production methodologies, the focus of the seminar was definitely timely. The day was set up around three questions: * What is co-production? * When is co-production most effective? * Is co-production useful or exploitative? Each of these was given a session in the programme, with each one being divided down into a number of subsidiary questions. These three sessions were book-ended with an opening slot which tackled those three questions head-on, and a final slot which returned to the questions to evaluate how – if – ideas had changed.

The day was designed so that everyone there would be an active participant – not just those of us who were presenting, but to try to break down barriers between ‘audience’ and ‘speaker.’ This worked, in parts – it’s always a tough thing to do, but as a democratic principle, it’s a good one. Presenters were given a tough brief: 10 minutes maximum, to ensure plenty of discussion time. It didn’t always work out, but it was important to try it; things were also slightly on the back foot as a result of Covid-19, as a number of people decided not to attend (plus there was some classic British uncertainty about how to meet each other now that hand-shaking or other close contact was off the cards – the elbow bump was a strong contender). Participants came from a wide range of institutions – archives, funding bodies, museums and galleries, universities, local history groups, local authorities, private organisations and more. That mix was really important, as it meant there was a good variety of voices – though again, there were some absences, which came up in some of the discussion.

We started with some insightful and sometimes provocative contributions from Catherine Clarke (IHR), Ayshah Johnston (Black Cultural Archives, BCA) and Victoria Hoyle (University of York). They got us thinking about what co-production might be and where we might find it, from the very modern (like the ‘Layers of London’ project) to the long-standing (like the Victoria County History). As we’d expect, community engagement and recognising and valuing different forms of expertise were factors that appeared here, and which resonated strongly across the day. It was excellent to hear explicit discussion about power in the collaborative relationships – in terms of what was recognised as worthy of recording, as well as who was involved in making decisions about the directions in which work was taken. This included potential conflict between the needs of different partners. Listening to each other was noted as the key skill, though one that isn’t easy to do and takes time to do well. The decision to collaborate isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, either. As Victoria Hoyle reminded us, a job shared does not always mean a job halved.

It was particularly pleasing to us to hear Sarah Lloyd (University of Hertfordshire) note that her moment of epiphany about collaboration and recognising different expertises had a railway connection. Talking with railway enthusiasts about a local disused branchline, she was able to put it into a socio-cultural context and they could offer the railway history and infrastructure detail – and they noted ‘but we all have expertise’. This formed the backbone of her idea of ‘expansive inclusion’, discussed in her contribution which really dug deep into some of the barriers to co-production. It might be things which are natural to academics but off-putting to others (like holding meetings in institutional settings; or inability to fund participant travel). If such hurdles can be overcome – and this is absolutely our experience – then the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Academic historians might add value to partners, whether as sounding boards for ideas or responding to more detailed research that they do (again, both of which we’ve gladly done in our project). Brilliantly Sarah’s comments honed in on what participants in project might gain, from skills and access to stories that might otherwise have been locked away, to establishing presence in histories from which they might previously have been excluded and an enhanced ability to think historically.

Sara Huws (East End Women’s Museum) stressed the importance of planning and of sincere engagement between collaborators. Drawing on a range of experience, her 3 tips for success are well worth sharing. Firstly, make a genuine invitation to collaborators but only when you are ready to do the work, including being aware of what it’ll entail. This might mean a lot of time in the set up stage, finding the right partners, working with existing community groups and getting up to speed on ‘their’ issues. Secondly, budget for as much as possible – the time it takes, but also being able to support partners and cover costs. Thirdly, maintain quality – of outputs, but as you go, of feedback to audiences. Fundamentally, you must do what you say you’re going to do.

The personal and emotive featured strongly. Emotional engagement with topics and projects could be invaluable, a number of us suggested – it could lead to a profound sense of ownership of collaborative projects. However, it carries with it particular challenges, including vicarious trauma if projects (like ours) are dealing with sensitive topics. Protecting everybody involved is important, as well as remembering that whilst those of us dealing with difficult topics regularly might become desensitised, for the person coming to the topic for the first time, it will all be new and possibly concerning. This was something that came out in the discussion of our project contribution to the day, given our subject matter.

We provided an overview of the project, particularly in relation to successes and barriers to co-production that we’ve encountered. Very much in keeping with others’ experiences, the personal connection that many of our volunteers feel with the work is crucial. We’ve tried to create space enough for all participants to get something of value from their engagement with the project. Where we’ve been able to align what we’re doing as a project with our various institutions’ strategic objectives, we’ve been able to secure strong buy-in. At the same time, we know we haven’t got everything right, and were quite frank about that – we’re certainly not fully co-productive, but try to be aware of power and expertises in what we do. This always involves negotiating institutional restrictions and demands – thinking at an organisational level. Time and resources to run a project (very much the things Sara Huws had picked up on) are central – this has been a very time-consuming project to run. Rewarding, certainly, but it takes a lot of effort from all.

It would have been great if we’d have been able to involve the volunteers more directly in the presentation (beyond canvassing opinions), but we did the best we could with Karen and Mike. What was interesting about the day was that our presentation was the only one featuring 2 (of our 3) partners. Perhaps it was partly a function of the tight time limit speakers were given that no-one else brought in collaborators; perhaps it was partly to do with the costs (in time and money) of bringing two people (even when the monetary costs were covered by the seminar organisers). But how we involve partners like this was flagged by other speakers as important,

There was an awful lot more in the day that we’ve not mentioned. This included Kristian Lafferty of Ancestry on some of the business and functional aspects to digital collaboration, and Rosa Schling (On the Record) about oral histories of often marginalised or easily overlooked topics (and the challenges of dealing with competing interpretations or understandings of what happened). Errol Francis (Culture&) discussed his work to engage more BAME communities with heritage and museums, and included a stunning reminder of the Maasai response to their cultural heritage having ended up on display in UK museums that these venues should be a ‘place for humanity not just objects’. That empathetic response is also important to our project, as we need to remember that the cases detailed all represent some form of human suffering. Steffan Dickers (Bishopsgate Institute) gave a lively and very personal take on the archivists role and how co-production with communities might fill important gaps in our records. Martin Spafford drew on his teaching experience with some inspirational examples of how to engage schoolchildren with history and the archives. Central to many of these presentations were questions about how we value co-production, and even what we mean by ‘value’ – questions to which there weren’t any easy answers and which remained very much open at the end of the day.

Conversations started during the sessions and over lunch were valuable, though the final session was most successful in encouraging dialogue throughout the room. Margot Finn (RHS) summarised some of her key points from the day, including how different values came to be appreciated within projects, the ways in which power differentials might be addressed, and the value of serendipity – something hard to write into project proposals or funding applications. The discussion that followed recognised all sorts of factors (like the generosity involved in co-production, that we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging complexity, and that we need to think about the sustainability of current work).

Yet we were, to some degree, preaching to the converted – everyone in the room had an interest in the approaches discussed. Should we look beyond this? If so, how? Another challenge came from the person who recognised that a lot of the participants were from relatively rarefied or privileged backgrounds. Whilst the diversity of voices in the room was (for many academic or archival gatherings) good, it could be better. When and where these sorts of events are held matters. How can we be more inclusive? Thinking about some of our project’s strongest connections – with family history – it was interesting to hear Ayshah Johnstone discussing where family links had played a part in the BCA’s activities. Significantly, this was one of the few times at which family history appeared in the day (other than in our project discussion). Victoria Hoyle asked where else these conversations about collaboration and co-production were going on: between family historians and academics is certainly one place. The family history community could usefully have provided input into the seminar, given the collaborative is key to a lot of what goes on. One for ‘Historians Collaborate’ to ponder!

Overall, it was a thought-provoking day, and well worth the time. How we take these conversations forward, share best practice, and enact the ideas discussed is now the challenge. In the meantime, we’d like to offer our thanks to all involved – speakers, session chairs, organisers and all participants.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:Emotion in the archive - Railway Work, Life & Death

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